By Caitlin Ball
As readers, how can we be expected not to ‘judge a book by its cover’, when publishing houses are still banking on the fact that we will?
Walking into a bookshop, it is easy to spot where the ‘men’s’ fiction ends, and the ‘women’s’ fiction begins. Dark colours, bold capital letters, battlefields and far-off worlds characterise the covers of the former. Light, bright colours, italic fonts and wistful looking (and generally also white) female models litter the ‘women’s’ section.
If you’re struggling to picture exactly what it is that I mean, give Lesley Pearse or Maeve Binchy a quick google for some epitomal examples.
But while a woman might feel more than comfortable to be seen browsing the bookshop shelf for fiction written by men, about men, sadly the reverse is mired in taboo. It’s not hard to see why, when women represent the vast majority of English students and are constantly having centuries-worth of male-centric literature shoved down our necks. We’re used to that.
However, these covers which display such tokens of femininity risk being deemed ‘chick-lit’ on sight, and seem specially designed to repel male readers from women’s writing.
We know that reading for pleasure grew to be a distinctly feminine activity throughout the past two centuries. Literate women in the upper-middle classes remained in the domestic sphere, reading to fill leisure time while their male counterparts dominated public domains.
One can only assume the ‘chick-lit’ genre was created in the mid 1990s with the sole aim of preserving the remnants of this archaic binary, while we were all still coming to terms with the gains of third-wave feminism. Now, despite the fact that the decades since have seen vast changes in attitudes towards traditional gender roles, female readerships are still being treated as if they’ve got the time and energy to rifle through swathes of identical, all equally degrading book covers.
I sometimes joke that my mum’s been reading the same book for the past 20 years. I know she’s gone through many a Lesley Pearse, for example. But having the discernible, recognisable face of a model on each cover convinces a wider literary audience that the female experience is an easy one to simplify, and is undeserving of complexity and nuance. I was shocked when I picked up one of my mum’s current reads to discover that this is the exact opposite of what Pearse’s fiction sets out to achieve. Each novel has a female heroine, yes, but in a different historical, social or economic context, allowing for a vast examination of solemn, complex women’s issues woven into each plot.
Much like the women on their front covers, modern female writers are continually being homogenised. Yes, trashy ‘chick-lit’ novels exist, but the danger lies in all female-centric fiction being advertised as such. Women writers should not have to fight against the ‘chick-lit’ cover tropes that will immediately consign their book to the realms of ‘trash’ and ‘tripe’- to a genre that is more than ignored — often actively sneered at- by the high-literature police.
This is, of course, all thanks to publishing houses who still believe that the key to skyrocketing sales is to slap the same, cheap visual clichés onto any books that are by women, about women. As Diane Shipley identifies in an article for The Guardian, ‘having cottoned on to the fact that chick-lit books sell like cupcakes, publishers are now adding chick-lit style covers to any book written by a woman whether it fits the genre definition or not.’ We should question why it is acceptable for publishing houses to run with gendered stereotypes on the covers of the books they promote, knowing full well they will only deepen the literary chasm between male and female writers and their readerships.
The use of tropes is, of course, a sure-fire way of drawing in your target audience, but then again, the very notion of selecting a ‘target audience’ seems restrictive and conservative. In an article for The Atlantic, Emily Harnett hit the nail on the head when she noted how ‘fiction about women… is too often characterized as niche-fiction — as too narrow to appeal to anyone but women, or speak universally about lived experience and culture.’
While the literary world remains in league with the rest of the world in regarding the male experience as the default, this observation will ring true. The assumption that only female readers will be interested in the lives of female-written, female characters is hugely problematic.
I would like to challenge the narrative. If a book cover strongly reflects a decision to single women out as the ‘target audience’, others who may enjoy it are deterred, and disinvited.
Surely, a book cover’s primary job is to grab the reader’s attention?
Using front cover tropes as a projection of genre, especially when it comes to ‘chick-lit’ and female-authored fiction, is not always an exact science. Please don’t be completely put off by ‘chick-lit’-covers. If you have time, give more women writers the chance they deserve.
Cover Illustration: Verity Laycock
In-Text Illustration: Anna Kuptsova